When a counselor hears consistent complaints about one teacher 

Q: I’m a school counselor, and I’ve had constant run-ins with one teacher, Jane, for the past four years. She has zero ability to relate to kids who aren’t straight-A students, and she holds all but the highest performers to unrealistic standards. She seems practically gleeful when kids do poorly in her class. Every year, kids come to my office crying, and parents call me exasperated because Jane doesn’t care what they have to say either. No matter who talks to her, she just digs in her heels. I spend way too much time on this one issue. Help!

A: It sounds like Jane has a poor grasp of where her students are cognitively, socially, and emotionally. However, you have a history of run-ins with her, so I doubt she would appreciate being lectured by you. I’d start by making another attempt to get to know her personally. Schedule an unstructured time to chat, and try to rebuild trust. Visit her classroom, and offer any authentic positive feedback. You still may not like her, but you may understand her better. Unless she is incapable of empathy, your best bet is to try a few different approaches and see if you have any luck combatting her stubborn streak.

Here are some possible steps to take the next time a student complains to you about Jane:

  • Problem solve with the student and work on his self-advocacy skills. If he doesn’t feel comfortable approaching the teacher on his own, he may after rehearsing his argument with you. Even if Jane is resistant, he may feel more empowered and less frustrated after telling her how he feels. At the same time, remind him that he can still learn from a teacher he doesn’t like. Work with him on academic strategies to be successful in that particular class. And keep it real. If the student points out that everyone else is struggling too, help him see that it isn’t personal.
  •  If that doesn’t go well or the student won’t meet with Jane alone, ask her to meet with you and the student together. I still would ask the student to contribute (respectfully and calmly) to the discussion. Be solution-oriented and conciliatory. Are there any obvious, reasonable compromises? As the counselor, you can act as mediator and model empathy, helping both parties listen reflectively to each other. This also is your chance to be the student’s advocate and help him articulate why he needs more support in the class.
  •  You mention that, typically, the parent calls the teacher before approaching you. What is the chain of command at your school? Can you direct them to the department chair? Perhaps the chair will meet with Jane or with Jane and the family. The department chair also can escalate as needed from there. Let the parent initiate that process. At some point, if you’re constantly the messenger approaching administrators, you may be perceived as annoying. Removing yourself from this ineffective cycle may be a form of self-preservation.

You seem to assume that this lies solely on your shoulders, which is adding to your frustration. You don’t supervise Jane. It’s reasonable to help students advocate for themselves or to share with the teacher any relevant details that could help his case. If feasible, you can talk to the teacher about the developmental needs of students in this age group. You also can be a sounding board for a student, providing a safe space for him to share his feelings. Beyond that, it’s probably time for administration to take over.  If that’s necessary, ideally the teacher’s immediate supervisor would be the one to approach the principal or assistant principal. This can help avoid further straining your own relationship with Jane. At some point, you need to bow out. As you noted, this is taking up a disproportionate amount of your time, and you are getting nowhere.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog.

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